Babies versus science

Babies versus science

Study leave: new lessons from castles, conferences and illusions

All playgrounds are not created equal! Unfortunately Max is oblivious of his surroundings as he enjoys exploring the local park at the base of Edinburgh castle.

People say that unexpected things happen every day when you have kids, but if you had asked me a few months ago I would have never imagined I would be living out of a suitcase for two months with my husband enthusiastically unemployed.

It was one of those “now-or-never” windows of opportunity that has turned our family’s daily routine on its head.

Now in Europe, day has become night, winter has become summer, and I have relinquished the role of primary carer.

In an earlier post I mentioned one of the hardest things about having children is that it makes it nearly impossible to travel. So with my husband looking for a career change, my daughter starting school next year and a big conference on in Europe, we decided to drop everything and go.

My husband submitted his letter of resignation and I submitted my application for study leave. Six weeks later I was catching up with colleagues at the University of Sussex, while my kids spent an afternoon rearranging the rocks on Brighton beach.

After a week in Scotland, we are currently in Bremen at the European Conference of Visual Perception, the first big international research conference I have been able to attend since having my daughter Susie.

To be honest, it has been a funny experience. I remember at my first conferences as a graduate student I was so excited to learn so many new things and meet as many new people as possible.

Now, more than a decade later, I am really enjoying the opportunity to reconnect with old colleagues and speaking to experts working on the same sorts of questions that fascinate me. With many of my colleagues now with young families of their own, it has also been nice to swap stories and hear how others are managing this balance.

New experiences

Beyond the work, one of the most rewarding parts of the trip has been the opportunity to see my own kids learn and develop as they respond to new people and different environments.

Though I note the thing that has fascinated my daughter the most is the fact that in Europe some people have clothes washing machines in their kitchen and that, in the “olden days”, people in castles had wooden boxes in their bedrooms to use as toilets.

Dad and daughter sharing an illusion.

As my daughter tries to imagine what life would be like living in a castle, I often wonder what sort of reality my own children experience as they go through life.

As adults sharing so many experiences with our children it’s easy to forget they are likely having entirely different thoughts and perceptions throughout their day. I don’t mean they just have more imagination and can be a little more distractable, but that many of their visual experiences may be drastically different from our own.

Some of the best ways to illustrate and investigate this type of individual difference in perception is through the use of illusions.

It has become a tradition at this big vision conference to have a “demo” evening every year, where researchers from around the world demonstrate the latest and greatest illusions.

I figured this would be one of the rare conference activities that may actually be fun for a four-year-old and would also be a great opportunity for her to learn something new about her own experiences and how they might differ from reality.

She loved the bright lights and different pictures but I am still not sure if I managed to convince her the things she was seeing were not really there.

One scientific finding that is important for all parents of young kids, relates to a phenomena called “crowding”. This is a very reliable finding that your ability to see any item (such as a letter, a face or a car) in your peripheral vision is drastically reduced if it is surrounded by other objects.

If you look directly at the cross on the top it is very hard to see the middle B in the word baby, because it is crowded by the other letters. In contrast, if you look at the bottom cross, the letter B in isolation is very easy to see.

Infants and young children have greatly enhanced “crowding effects”. So when children run on to the road apparently oblivious of oncoming traffic, or reach to get a cup and knock over the juice bottle beside them, these things could well be happening because they simply don’t have the same awareness of each of the individual items.

Children likely experience a clear image of the thing they are looking directly at, while everything else might be a cluttered, hazy mess.

So when you next implore your child to “just open your eyes”, it might not be their fault … you may simply be expecting too much of their visual system.

Meanwhile, as we pack our suitcases for our next train through to Amsterdam, I am excited about what will come next. It will be a great chance to spend a few days meeting up with some of the leaders in my field - exchanging ideas and talking about new experiments.

For the kids, I wonder what they will think about a city filled with waterways and I can only hope they avoid being hit by one of the thousands of bikes flying around the streets.